Daytona Dominator: The Russell Factor
memorable moments with mister d
by dean adams
Thursday, February 26, 2004
There are many vivid memories associated with Scott Russell and the Daytona International Speedway, so many that it's difficult to focus on just a few. No rider has dominated the Daytona 200 like Scott Russell did in the 1990s. Russell won the Daytona 200 five times on two different makes of motorcycles. Domination may not be a strong enough word to describe the hold Russell had on the Daytona 200. In the end, Russell winning the 200 seemed as probable as the sun coming up the next morning.
The memories: Scott Russell won it pretty and he won it from a position of strength, but he won it ugly at least once. And he lost it ugly too. I watched every one of Russell's wins, from the pit lane, from the press center and knew him as well. As anyone who knew him will tell you, after the first win at Daytona in 1992, something happened to Russell and he simply became a race-winning animal at the Speedway. After that first 200 win a definite transformation happened when he drove his car through the tunnel leading to the infield of the Daytona Speedway. He walked taller, talked bigger and where at other tracks he struggled, at Daytona, he ended more practice and qualifying sessions as the fastest man, seemingly all the time. He broke his own lap records, collected Rolex pole award watches like some men collect knives.
The backbone of the Russell-Daytona lore may sound like a myth but it isn't. Russell, sitting in the Speedway grandstands, watched Freddie Spencer win Daytona in 1985, and decided right there to start roadracing. Seven years later he won his first Daytona 200, and by 1995 he'd won three and people were already starting to call him Mr. Daytona. He finished the decade with five wins-which then seemed like a insurmountable number of Daytona 200 victories. When he nailed his fifth, many people felt it was an achivement that would stand for decades.
The '92 win was hard fought and showed that Russell could be a crafty devil if he had to. The Muzzy Kawasaki was down on speed—he'd finished fifth the year before in the 200—to Polen's Ferracci Ducati, but the two man race came down to the last lap with Polen leading to what seemed an inevitable win. The Texan had broken his own lap record in drilling the pole and seemed to be the man to beat. He led all of the final lap except the last fifty feet. Russell used the draft of several backmarkers to strafe past the Ducati and drill his first win at the Speedway. The margin of victory over Polen was .182.
Unforgettable moment from that race: Russell raising his gloved fist in the air in victory circle. With his first up he slowly raised his right index finger, and he held that position for over a minute.
In 1993, Russell was beaten by Eddie Lawson and the Yamaha, Lawson using almost exactly the same move on Russell that he'd used on Polen-the last lap high speed draft-pass. Russell had nearly dominated the race, but the first man to cross the finish line was Lawson. True story: prior to 1991, Russell used to rent video tapes of GP racing and study Lawson.
Unforgettable moment from that race: Russell sitting in the post-race press conference, cool and collected, saying that he didn't actually mind finishing second to Eddie Lawson. "I'm just proud to be here," he said.
If you're looking for a perfect Scott Russell moment, then the 1994-1995 Daytona 200 wins were epic. In '94 Russell qualified on the sixteenth row of the grid and looked to be hopelessly out of the running in the early part of the race. A Ducati romp looked to be in store with Polen, Picotte (from the pole) and Corser out front and running hard. Corser was leading the race when the pace car came out and compressed the pack into one long stream of bikes. When the green waved, Russell could see Corser and Polen and set off after the Ducati duo. In a few laps he was amongst them. Russell pitted early for gas late in the race and afterwards took the lead as Corser and then Lawson were forced to pit. He ran out a three second lead to the flag and won his second 200 from the sixteenth row of the grid, a feat that stands unmatched to this day.
Unforgettable moment from that race: Standing on the front row and not being able to see Russell's Kawasaki, it was buried so deep in the grid.
If you thought it couldn't get any more dramatic after 1994 for Russell, he proved that wasn't the case in 1995. Russell qualified on the pole with a new lap record but shortly after taking the lead on the opening laps, he crashed the Muzzy Kawasaki in the Horseshoe, and narrowly missed being run over by both Carl Fogarty and Colin Edwards II. Russell jumped back up and got to the Kawasaki, and with the help of a corner-worker, it re-fired and he re-joined the race. The Kawasaki was only lightly damaged-the biggest mechanical problem was that it was missing a foot peg and the hand-levers were bent. Russell's biggest problem was that he was so far back he couldn't see the leaders even when he was on the banking. The pace car came out when Doug Chandler crashed the Harley on lap four, and suddenly, Russell's over 30 second gap to the front suddenly became 10 seconds or less. Twenty laps later, Russell took the lead and put in a super-human effort for the remainder of the race; he rode like a man running from Satan himself. During his final pit stop Russell was handed a water bottle by a crewman so he could take a quick pull from it. He slapped it away angrily and I thought for a second he was actually going to get off the bike and start a fight with the crewman.
Russell never relegated the lead and won the race by an astounding 53 seconds. In two Daytona 200s he had come from the back of the grid and the ground to win the race. It was right about this time when people started to think Scott Russell was unbeatable at Daytona.
Unforgettable moment from that race: Moments after announcer Ben Chitwood told the crowd that Russell had crashed in the horseshoe, I asked Muzzy what plan B was. He shrugged and said, "I learned long ago not to get emotional at endurance races."
Not long after the 1995 Daytona win, Russell left the Kawasaki team and signed with Suzuki. When he arrived at Daytona the following March of 1996, Russell was mounted on a GSX-R750 sponsored by Lucky Strike. Suzuki had sent the entire GP team to race the 200 but the race was rained out and would run the following weekend. Russell spent the week off buying a new Porsche and prowling around with his then new girlfriend T-Jaye. When the race did go down a fierce battled grew between Russell and Honda's Miguel DuHamel. On the final lap, Russell danced to his usual spot behind the leader and tried for the last lap draft-pass, but DuHamel squared-off the final bend (!) and ran for the flag. Russell finished second, just .10 behind DuHamel.
Unforgettable moment from that race: Russell lamenting post-race that he was planning on paying for the Porsche with his Daytona victory winnings and bonus. Second place money, he said, barely was enough to pay the insurance.
In 1997 Russell came back to the Speedway mounted on a Yamaha YZF750. He'd been hired to race in WSC for Yamaha and they asked if he'd do Daytona for them as well. Sure, Russell said, as long as you pay me $250,000 if I win the race. They agreed and Russell went to the Speedway ready to win. Very early in practice and qualifying Russell appeared out of sorts on the bike and he complained that he couldn't find a rhythm. It was not an act. Russell seemed unable to find the magic and was lashing out at his crew. Colin Edwards-Russell's team-mate-took the provisional pole (1:49.247) with a new lap record in the first qualifying session, and for much of the second session Russell trolled around in the 1:50 range. Finally, he found what was missing, applied some Russell magic and ka-boom, drilled an even faster lap than Edwards, and took the pole with a 1:48.999.
Russell won the race from the pole, in perhaps his strongest ever performance at Daytona. He took the lead on lap five and was never headed, through pit stops and even with a pace car appearance. He trolled around on the last few laps and still finished the race with a ten second lead. With this win he became Mr. Daytona.
Unforgettable moment from that race: In Sunday morning warm-up, Russell coasted the Yamaha down the pit lane, revving the engine hard, with his arm out like he was checking the time on his new Rolex he'd won for the pole. Russell was an artist at intimidating and psyching out his rivals. The gesture was timed perfectly-he throttle whipped the Yamaha down the pit lane, and just as he was about to roll to a stop, the session went green. Russell put his left hand back on the clip-on, jammed the Yamaha in gear, and was gone.
1998 was essentially a repeat of 1997 for Scott Russell at Daytona. Yamaha-mounted-but on Michelin tires-he came, he saw, he took it all home. Pole, new lap record, the win in a completely dominating fashion. DuHamel was doing his best to hang with Russell early in the race but crashed just before the first pit stop. In what would be his final Daytona 200 win, Russell looked like an NHL player on the ice in a game against blind men. He passed at will, and had a huge advantage over second place before his final stop. He was unbeatable. He won his fifth Daytona 200 that year, a record that stands as the most wins by any rider in the history of the race.
Unforgettable moment from that race: I sat with him in his motor home not fifteen minutes after the race ended. Russell lay on the leather couch wearing a pair of shorts. He wasn't sweating, he wasn't breathing hard. He had his hands behind his head and he idly watched TV as we talked. Through the window behind him you could see what seemed to be a hundred friends, family and fans who were there to see him. "What's wrong with those guys?" he asked of his competitors in the race. "I kept looking behind and there was nobody. I even slowed down. I can't believe they could not keep up."
I asked him how he did it, how did he do any of it? He looked at me sort of sheepishly and confessed that he didn't really know. "It was easy, though," he said. "I could do another 50 laps right now," he said.